Billy Clift, the Busiest Man in Show Biz

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by Michael Vaccaro

Billy Clift usually has between 5 and 10 different projects going on at the same time. I got to work with him on his most recent success, the documentary, “The Advocate Celebrates 50 Years: A Long Road To Freedom,” which was just nominated for an Emmy Award. Happily, he took a few hours out of his crazy busy schedule to sit down with me over a bottle… um, I mean…a glass of champagne, and he filled me in on everything that’s happening now.

Michael Vaccaro: OK, let's start off with the big news of the day, "The Advocate Celebrates 50 Years: A Long Road To Freedom." Congrats on he Emmy nom! 

Billy Clift: Thank you so much. 

Michael: So, let’s talk about it. How'd it come about? What did you learn from making the film? What was the most fascinating thing about it for you?

Billy: It started with the president being elected.. I felt so hopeless and out of control.. 

Michael: Oh, my God! Tell me about it. Worst night in many years.

Billy: Right. Well, I wanted to do something. I had heard about the Black Cat protest. 

Michael: Pre-Stonewall. 

Billy: Yes, and I spoke to so many people who had never heard of it. I thought this is something I could do. I’m a filmmaker. We learn from the past.  So, that’s where I started. I thought I would be making a feature about that, and possibly keep going with gay history. But, I was unsure of exactly what I was going to do, so I just started filming and figured I’d see where it took me. I filmed for a few months, getting some information and making connections. Then David Millbern and Paul Colichman heard that I was running around shooting, and they asked to meet with me. They brought up the fact that the 50th anniversary of the magazine, the Advocate, was just happening. Paul owned the magazine at the time. What if this would be a good tie in? The Advocate came out of the Black Cat protest, as well. It was a perfect fit. So, David came on board and we started. Later, I brought Nancy Cohen in to help, and we were really cooking with gas. 

Michael: And it really turned out amazing! I’m so proud of it, and you! How’d you get started as a film director? Tell me about your relationship with Montgomery Clift, and your short film, "Monty.” I think that’s what you were working on when we first met.

Billy: Being a film director was a dream I had had when I was young, but never gave myself the permission to do it. I had become a hair and make-up man in the industry, and was privileged to work with some amazing directors, like Blake Edwards, for instance, idols! And I felt intimidated by them. How could I compete with that?  So I stuffed the dream. Many years later, my friend Elizabeth Montgomery had passed, and that took me to a place of self-reflection. I wanted to follow my dream… and try. I understood that I never wanted any regrets.. If it didn't work out, that was fine, but it wasn’t fine not to try. Montgomery Clift is a distant cousin, and Brooks Clift used to come to our house for Christmas and Easter meals. We were the only family he had in Los Angeles. I was just a kid. Brooks used to talk about him at length, and it was fascinating. Once I had become a filmmaker and I was looking for inspiration, I thought, why don't I do something about his memory?, and I came up with the idea to do a bio pic. That was 2016. His nephew recently came out with a doc that I’ve not seen yet, but I’m really look forward to seeing it. I made the short film to see if I could envision this man, in hopes of possibly someday making a feature. I was very happy with the outcome. And so the dream is to now do it. 

Michael: I want to hear all about Elizabeth Montgomery. Who didn’t LOVE Elizabeth Montgomery! 

Billy: Lizzie was my first celebrity as an early twenties hair dresser when I’d just come out of hair school. Like you said, who didn’t love Elizabeth Montgomery, she had been my idol, and I remember sitting in front of the tv watching her first episode of “Bewitched.”  It was a dream come true to meet her and actually have her become a very close friend. She was an amazing person, and I feel fortunate that I was around her for so many years. She was someone who was very passionate about life and she was a good role model. She loved people and showed compassion and kindness to everyone. 

Michael: Speaking of Elizabeth Montgomery, you recently worked on a show called "TV Therapy" with my friend, Erin Murphy, who played "Tabitha" on “Bewitched.”

Billy: Terry Ray came up with this idea…

Michael: I love Terry Ray. Of course, he’s in my show, “Child of the ‘70s!”

Billy: Yes!  “TV Therapy” is cute and silly. Terry and I wanted to work on something together and it was fun. We’ll be doing some more episodes later when Im not so insanely busy. 

Michael: Busiest man in show biz! You have a million things going on. There's this brand new thing happening, another documentary that you're filming in Poland. What's that all about?

Billy: It’s a wonderful story about a gay couple in Silverlake in Los Angeles that had a beautiful painting that they had bought 12 years ago at an auction house in NYC. Two years ago, they get a knock on the door from homeland security, who said the painting had been stolen by the nazis.  They didn’t t really believe it at first, but it turned out to be true. A 16th century painting., A Portrait of a Lady, so we are calling the doc, “Our Lady of the Kitchen,” because that’s where it hung in their house. Now, the LGBTQ community in Poland is experiencing a very hostile time politically, and this couple felt compelled to use this situation as diplomatic advocacy. They would be happy to give the painting back, they said, as long as there was a plaque beside the painting saying that it was a gay couple that had given the painting back. It became a very big deal.  I’m going to Poland to film interviews with many people around the painting and some politicians. The mayor of Warsaw is a lot more liberal. The president of the country, not so much. We’ill see where this story goes. 

Michael: That is going to be amazing! Congratulations. 

Billy: Thanks so much. I’m really excited.

Michael: OK, so now…you’re fantastic and funny film,  "Hush Up Sweet Charlotte." Let's talk about how that happened, and tell me about your love for those kinds of films from the '50s and '60s. 

Billy: “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte” was one of the films I would watch when I’d get home form school. The million dollar movie. 

Michael: I remember that well.

Billy: I remember being so scared by the film.  And “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”  So, when I decided to make this broad “cray” stab at being a filmmaker, I had an idea to make a movie about Elizabeth Montgomery, the last days of her life and how it effected me. I got a decent script. I got a good producer on board and all sorts of amazing people, and we got 75 percent of the financing. It really looked like my first film was going to be an interesting one. Then it all fell apart. It was after the crash and the film industry was re-adjusting itself. And I really looked at what I should do. I talked to a few very important people and they all said I should make something ultra low budget. Just do it and find a niche you can kick ass with! Around this time, I saw this guy, Matthew Martin, play the character of “Baby Jane” in a play called “Christmas With the Crawfords," and he was just so amazing, and so real. He wasn’t a caricature. So I went, let’s do a dark but real parody of Baby Jane! One of my favorite obsessions. When I finished the film, it premiered at the film festival Frameline in San Francisco. It was sold out and insane! The people went crazy. But I started getting terrible, mean reviews, and I thought, “Oh well, I should just listen and move on, I tried, but it’s not for me.” Then Variety, out of nowhere, it seemed, wrote a glorious review. It was as if I’d paid them to write it. I then thought, “Well, I might as well keep going.. So the obvious sequel was “Hush Up Sweet Charlotte.” And then “Dead, Dead, Dead Ringer.” All Bette Davis films, and that’s my parody trilogy!

Michael: Where are you from originally? You seem to love LA, and the whole Hollywood mystique. I love it! I'm from New York City, and when I first came out here, I loved it. The glamour, sure, but I even love the dark, seedy "Day of the Locust" feel that this place has. And of course, I really love the work.

Billy: I was born in Seattle but grew up here. My dad was a radio DJ and worked here in Los Angeles and in Seattle. So I just ended up being born there, but soon lived here and this is all I really know growing up. I went to Hollywood High and all my formative years were right in Hollywood. I had moved to San Francisco for awhile when I was trying to figure what  I wanted to do with my life after Lizzie died, and soon realized I needed to move back home to really pursue this thing called movies. I was very good at hair and make-up, and was fortunate to have a good career. But movie-making is my passion. I get so excited doing anything on this side of it. I’m actually producing and going to be the Director of Photography on a film soon and I’m so excited to be doing that. Someone else’s story! It will be wonderful… even though I do love telling my own story, like my documentary.  My own point of view!!!

Michael: Hollywood High. That must have been fascinating. Do you have a favorite place in LA? How about a favorite restaurant that you could recommend? I used to love the Formosa Cafe, which felt like walking into a Humphrey Bogart movie, but I think that place is gone now. Are there any old LA places that still exist that you love? Maybe downtown?

Billy: It has to be El Coyote, on Beverly. I’v been going there since I was a kid. Another would be Palermo’s on Vermont, another place I’ve been going to forever. Musso and Frank.. best darn martinis imaginable. I miss places like the Brown Derby. I was fortunate to be around when there were still a few places like that left in Hollywood. 

Michael: You and I both lived through the AIDS crisis in the '80s and '90s. I lost almost every man I knew, and, as you know, I lost my husband, as well. I know you lost people. We all did. Can you tell me your thoughts about those years, and what it feels like for you to be a survivor?

Billy: Ugh.. what a time.. I think I may have to write something about it now. It’s time for more AIDS stories because the youth have no idea what it was like. Im so glad POSE is doing it for us right now. Amazing show. When Lizzie died  was devastated. I had a real breakdown. Lizzie died in ’95. It was after so many of my closest and dearest friends died. People dying on a weekly basis. And when Lizzie died.. It was a combination of all those deaths, it all finally hit me. I had become so numb. But Lizzie’s death, well, it was so unexpected, and it truly made me spiral. I’m glad to be here as an example to tell stories. I have a lot more of them in me, and I look forward to sharing them. 

Michael: Me, too. On a lighter note, I know you have season 2 of "My Sister Is So Gay" with Loni Anderson coming out soon, and now you're also working on "Aunt Cissy" with Kathy Garver. Where do you want to be 5 or 10 years from now? Where do you see yourself?

Billy: “My Sister Is So Gay” is sweet. And Loni was a dear to work with, so was everyone in the cast, Terry Ray, Debra Wilson, Rae Dawn Chang, really wonderful to be around. I look forward to people’s reactions. The first season was very different and this season, it’s a little more grown up. And it was great to use not only my director skills, but I got  to use the camera, too. I’m used to doing camera in the many music videos I’ve done, but this is a different way to shoot.  It was great to do it. I see myself in 5 years continuing to work constantly and getting more and more jobs on things I want to do. I want to be a well- rounded and respected director, learning, growing and getting better and better at my field. I’m so fortunate that right now I’m up for the Emmy for the documentary. So, I guess I should just keep on telling stories… and see where it all goes.

Michael: I hate to break it to you, but the bottle is empty.